Open Letter to Jazz Journalists of New Orleans

Back in 1986 when my book The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide was released, music journalism was an entirely different phenomenon than it is today. Jazz critics had built a firewall around themselves, perhaps in self-defense as what was once America’s popular music faded into demographic marginality, and those who wrote about it found themselves writing to a disappearing audience. One of the reviews of the Jazz Record Guide in a major jazz publication complained that the editor of the Guide “isn’t even a jazz critic.”  Having written about jazz among other subjects for 15 years at that point and just finished a project which required me to listen to 10,000 vinyl jazz albums (the book came out just as the now-defunct CD era was dawning) and give them star ratings I had to wonder what kind of exclusive club it was that guarded such sacrosanct gates.

Jazz (via Bigstock)

Thankfully things have changed since then, and jazz has fully embraced its interaction with a multiplicity of other music forms; those who write about jazz are now a lot more open-minded. By 2000 when I edited the jazze.com website for the Knitting Factory’s media outlet, our motto was the question “What Is Jazz?” It was a question with a potentially unlimited number of answers. The very word “jazz” can still stimulate lively and thoughtful conversation as Nicholas Payton has proven recently with his hotly debated web thread on the legitimacy of the term itself.

Today jazz is its own international language, and of course, the argument rages as our own Jazz and Heritage Festival features headliners like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, while the Montreal Jazz Festival (which I’m currently attending) presents pop figures Liza Minelli and James Taylor alongside such venerable jazz icons as Cedar Walton and Wayne Shorter. The debate about bringing pop figures to jazz festivals has been going on for decades now, especially in New Orleans where the heritage is so closely guarded, but I think we’ve reached the point where the Bon Jovi’s of the music world no longer pose a threat to jazz in any of its myriad forms—they instead bring a potentially larger audience of listeners. Music listeners probably care less about categories now than they ever did.

Where does this leave jazz journalism? In a better place than it was in 1986, at least. Every publication in New Orleans features some kind of writing about jazz. OffBeat‘s jazz coverage over the course of the last 25 years has been an essential element in supporting the music’s vitality and documenting its progress. If only such a cultural entity existed 100 years ago, the gestation of America’s musical contribution to civilization would be much better understood. The music is accepted as a core element of this city’s cultural identity, having transcended well beyond the cliches of “revival” into full archetype status. Young musicians of many disciplines embrace improvisational music and traditional New Orleans jazz as part of the same process. A generation ago only Steve Lacy and a few others acknowledged such continuity.

Last month the Jazz Journalists Association held its annual awards show in New York. Sonny Rollins, whose memorable performance at Jazz Fest last year still resonates in my mind’s ear, was honored with multiple awards. Larry Blumenfeld, a writer who has graced the pages of this publication, was named Jazz Writer of the Year. The event was mirrored with satellite celebrations in other cities. I suggested to the organization’s president Howard Mandel that the JJA should come to New Orleans and hold one of its celebrations here in the birthplace of jazz. He wrote back that he would love to do so, then pointed out that not only do we not have a chapter, not a single New Orleans-based writer is a member of the JJA.

Perhaps we’ve gone past the point of pigeonholing ourselves as writing about any specific kind of music. Or maybe it’s just the $75 annual dues the organization requires. But it strikes me that the many, many writers contributing to New Orleans publications who love jazz for its past, present and future should consider either joining the JJA or starting our own organization.

We should have a New Orleans chapter of the JJA. It’s up to us as individuals to do it. To find out details go to www.JJANews.org. Here’s what Mandel wrote back to me: “We can talk about how the JJA can establish some beachhead in NO. We’re planning to do a lot of online webinars about pertinent journalistic topics and we want to find and help new journalists develop as well as upgrade veterans’ skills and points-of-view. We’re a membership organization, not huge and/or well-financed, but get some good things done and NO is a fertile place, where we should be, want to be active. Our benefits of membership, etc. can be seen at: members.jazzjournalists.org.”

  • Jazzmandel

    Thanks for this note, John — it’s a good time to join the JJA, since first-time professional and industry associate members can get a $20 discount off first annual dues by using the promo code 2012Awards during the registration process. Go to http://www.JJANews.org and click “Join”!

  • Jennifer Odell

    Great points here, John. Howard — great discount! I just joined … 

  • JazzLunatique

    John, this is a discussion that I would love to have with you in person.  I consider myself a jazz journalist/documentarian/musicologist/parasite.  From what I see and know about the JJA, it is a good organization and full of interesting, knowledgeable, mostly good folks who have similar interests as mine.  The way you frame the discussion, I’m going to join.

    However, I’m not sure what it will do for me in exposure or economic terms.  I think it could improve my writing and my understanding of jazz and related music and how to connect the two.  But will my joining the JJA improve my chances of publishing any of my ideas/articles?  The major jazz magazines (of which i can think of 2) have a slight interest in New Orleans jazz, whether traditional or modern, or in avant garde jazz which I am most fluent in.  Despite a vibrant jazz scene here, they’re not interested in it or too focused on New York.  The journalistic outlets here spread their attention around to other musical genres (which they should) so that despite the amount of interesting jazz here, they don’t have room for a lot of it either. 

    And will joining the JJA improve the abysmal rates which we freelancers based in New Orleans are paid either locally or by the national magazines?  I would love to do in-depth analysis and profiles of many musics and musicians, but it is simply not worth the money.  Even now I spend too much time on it for the money.

    Such issues need to be discussed and challenged.  As I said, I am willing to put up the money for a year to see where the JJA gets me.

  • Jazzmandel

    JazzLunatique, the JJA cannot guarantee that membership alone will improve one’s exposure or finances — no professional organization promises that. What the JJA can do is increase communications, offer opportunities to network, help raise a members’ profile within the profession, encourage and facilitate conversation about new trends in the profession, and offer advanced training in use of new journalistic tools. What the member does with these benefits of membership is up to the member.

    Personally, I believe improving one’s writing, understanding of jazz as it’s related to other musics and the social context and also group conversation on the evolving media landscape can indeed improve one’s abilities to get published, and maybe lend leverage for better assignments at better pay. The JJA networking can help a member build links to other members and perhaps find editors/publications open to one’s work. I would counsel (and I think other JJA members would, also) anyone about how to pitch to the publications I have experience and contacts with. I don’t believe DownBeat and JazzTimes are disinterested in New Orleans music, traditional, modern OR avant-garde, though they operate through their own perspectives on what to cover, when and how. There are many JJA members, both veterans and new members, who have broken into DB and JT. But the JJA also urges jazz journalists to realize there ware opportunities for publishing that are beyond DB and JT, and may offer more visibility and better pay (or at least more frequent publication). 

    The JJA is not a union, either — as a non-profit professional organization we are not allowed to lobby or negotiate terms of employment. However, we can offer practical advise on how members can negotiate for themselves, and on how members can create platforms and incipient business models that may evolve into income streams. We can help create standards-of-practice regarding on-the-job issues, sometimes regarding intellectual property rights, sometimes relations with clients or subjects. We can help identify potential new clients. We offer consultation on book contracts, e-publishing, social media self-promotion, multiple sales, teaching, contacts with publicists, community relations. 

    The JJA is a membership organization, and is successful to the extent that its members participate in its programs, contributing as much as they receive. We are all strengthened by being part of a professional community; the stronger professional community gives each of us more resources and a stronger voice. At least that’s the theory. I’m hoping the New Orleans jazz journalists will join up so we can improve all the contacts from 504 with other media experts in the jazz world.

  • JazzLunatique

     Howard, as usual, you make very good points.  I’m in.